For too long, the theatre program at St. Augustine’s College has maintained an exceedingly low profile – and indeed, its current production isn’t on the college’s master calendar(!) – but under the leadership of George Jack, a staging of J.E. Franklin’s Miss Honey’s Young’uns has reached a few community bulletin boards. That’s a step in the right direction, for the work of the ensemble involved in this production is for the most part strong, and the play itself is a powerful reexamination of the challenges minority students faced years ago as our nation’s struggle for civil rights pressed forward.
We were recently reminded that living survivors of the Nazi death camp at Treblinka are now down to just two people. Every month, at a breakfast meeting of World War II vets at Pam’s Farm House, in Raleigh, there are fewer attendees. And it’s a fact that students matriculating in college nowadays have grown up thinking that our civil rights have been part and parcel of our American fabric forever. Not so – there are as time goes on fewer and fewer witnesses to history. For this reason, this play, which concerns “students attending a college where they are the first and only African-American kids on campus,” must resonate strongly, and not only with those of us who lived through the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The play, by Jennie Elizabeth Franklin (b. 1937), one of our most prolific authors , was published in 1994 but remains relevant today. St. Aug’s powerful production stars Valerie Hall as Miss Honey, the illiterate housekeeper at Jefferson Davis’ former home, now a separate-but-unequal residence for minority kids. Four college students – played by Jasmine Delena Glenn, Klara Oliver, Tiffany Morgan, and Aupenda-Angelique Simmons – move in, and their adjustment challenges begin right away. Four young men – Dante Sellers, Anthony Purnell, Jr., Darius F, Martin, and Eric Barstow – offer to help and guide them as the issues grow from being ignored by white classmates to being spat upon to a cross-burning and gunshots at the residence. An Angela Davis look-alike, played by Jasmine Brice, brings renewed strength and determination to the mix as a result of the character’s forthright and boldly-stated encouragements to activism. (The production crew included technical director Chase Lowe and stage manager E’Qwette Dixon.)
The action occurs in seven scenes, called “rituals,” set off in most cases by musical interludes, all aptly chosen to enhance the growing drama. The uni-set is an effective piece of work that allows the story to play out on and off-stage in a total of four separate places. The costumes are typical of the era, including bobby socks for the four younger ladies.
The cast puts the work across fairly well, although the effectiveness of individual projections of words varies. Since the words are everything in drama, this is a bit of a problem; the pace was mostly brisk, and chances are that a slightly slower tempo would have facilitated more precise elocution in some cases. (From this observer’s perspective, the standouts were Glenn, Sellers, Barstow, and Brice.) Overall, however, the plight – and the courage – of these young people, and the conflicting emotions they are forced to deal with, are more than amply rendered, and the closing lines, delivered by Miss Honey, bring the evening to a powerful and poignant conclusion. The large crowd responded enthusiastically as the drama unfolded, and at the end the cast was warmly applauded.
Miss Honey’s Young’uns continues on November 4 in the Seby Jones Fine Arts Auditorium at St. Augustine’s College. See our calendar for details.
Note: The play includes some strong language that some may find objectionable.